For a Michelin-starred, Food & Wine Best New Chef Paul Virant (Vie, Perennial Virant) has the modest manner of a natural-born Midwesterner (St. Louis to be precise). So when he claims to have written a cookbook that has a whole new way of cooking in it, he immediately looks a bit sheepish and hurries to give credit to all the different inspirations that have informed his work over the years. Still, look through his new The Preservation Kitchen, written with Kate Leahy (A16: Food + Wine), and tell us there isn’t something to be said for his book being one of the few that really takes a fresh perspective on how cooking works. In fact, it’s two books. The first is a guide to preserving the bounty of farms and farmers’ markets; there, its distinction is that, in a world full of homey guides to putting up food, here’s a chef offering a range of more sophisticated, restaurant-level canning and pickling recipes. The second, which is the more novel part, tells you how to use the things you’ve preserved in a wide range of recipes. If Chicago food is about anything, it seems, it’s about using acidity to add sparkle to dishes, and this is his guide to using the flavors of preservation as elements within a dish — not to scream "pickled!" but to heighten the natural flavors of your ingredients. We met him at Perennial Virant to talk about his book, which comes out next Tuesday.
So there are plenty of how-to canning books out there. What’s different about yours?
The difference is, as a chef you identify yourself differently, do things differently. I do a ton of canning, and it isn’t just about putting a side of pickles on the plate. It’s how we incorporate the flavors of what we preserve into the dishes. That’s the nice thing about the menus in the book, it shows you how to work with preserved flavors. Even if you don’t pickle or can, there’s so many great products out there, you can go buy something from Hogue Cellars or Rick’s Picks or some place and use it.
The idea is that if you incorporate a little of that acidity into a dish, it creates balance. It’s not just about adding a pickled flavor, it’s about making an integrated dish. Say you take a butter sauce and you add a little liquid from some pickled asparagus, add some onions — there it is, a sauce. What a great way to use the entire contents of the jar. It’s not pickling stuff just to have cool-looking jars on a shelf.
You know, it’s not necessarily a sophisticated thing — it’s a very traditional midwestern thing, wanting to support midwestern farmers, and to preserve the bounty of the Midwest to be able to use it in the wintertime. It grew out of the economics of farming — how do I save the stuff that’s good when I have a lot of it — but over time, it became a style.
So how did you become so interested in it? Did you grow up in a household that canned a lot?
Not my mom, but her mom, and my dad’s mom did. My grandparents on my mother’s side had a pretty good-sized garden, and there was a lot of canning and preserving — and freezing, too. But you know, I grew up on canned vegetables, and I don’t mean the good, home-preserved kind.
You worked for Paul Kahan at Blackbird when it was first open, and he’s somebody you certainly think of as making that kind of bright, flavor-popping acidic food. Did you get it from working for him?
Well, I don’t feel I worked for him, I feel like I worked with him when Blackbird was first starting up. His tastes, the things he liked were the things I liked, too. I guess the main thing I got from him was he encouraged me to look for farmers and purveyors — he’d say there are so many farmers, it’ll take time to develop the relationships but you can do it.
Another chef who taught me a lot about using acidity was Wayne Nish. I worked for him in New York at March in the early nineties. That was when I really got into Korean and Asian pickled things. You know, I grew up in St. Louis, I probably didn’t have Chinese food until I was 16, and I’d be doing the Chinatown shopping for March — I lived in Brooklyn, so I’d come in on the train and hit Chinatown on my way to work and find all this amazing stuff.
And the Everest Room — Chef Joho would have sauerkraut, that’s basically a pickle, pickled cabbage. Or he’d do crepinettes with half-smoked sturgeon wrapped in sauerkraut. We’ve done that dish at Vie.
You learn from all these things, but I think this book is a good representation of my style. It’s who I am and how I cook now.
So let’s talk about the person who’s going to use this book at home. Is there any, you know, basic principle that you’d offer about how to use acidity in a dish and make it work?
A basic principle, jeez … (thinks for a minute) … I guess, again, it’s about creating balance. Like if you’re making a butter sauce, fat balances acidity. So that’s what you’re going for. It could be butter, or reduced meat stock, or fish stock. But that’s the combination, fat and acidity. Fat or a starch — it could be cheese, or we’ll put pickled vegetables on a panzanella.
A lot of times we’ll mix fresh and pickled of the same ingredient, asparagus, or green beans, at about a three-to-one or four-to-one ratio.
So if somebody was going to start preserving things this year, what would you suggest they start with?
Well, I’d say ramps, except, where can you get ramps if you’re a normal person.
You can do quick pickling — you don’t have to worry about the technical part of canning, just do them quick in the refrigerator and see if you like them. I also think fruit jams are less intimidating than vegetables — they’re also safer. You’re trying to get a pH of less than 4.6 with anything, and most fruit’s already below that. Except figs.
But I like the science side of it, I always have. I like fermenting, I like baking breads. I like food that’s alive.